9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reflections of a Demented Dispatcher

Taken from 911 Magazine, June/July 2009
Written by Gail Koger, retired from the Glendale Police Department in Arizona as a Communications Specialist in 2007.

Thirty-one years of wild requests, screwy questions, bizarre behavior, and outrageous demands have left me with a permanent twitch and an uncontrollable craving for chocolate. Don't get me wrong. Working as a 911 dispatcher can be very rewarding. But, some days I felt like the whole world was nuts. I mean, c'mon, who in their right mind calls 911 for the winning lottery numbers? Huh? On a normal day, my calls include examples such as this winner:

A hysterical woman yelled, "My bird is in a tree!" Sometimes I really can't help myself, so I said, "Birds have a tendency to do that, ma'am." The woman screeched, "No! You don't understand. My pet parakeet is in the tree. I've just got to get him down." Like I said, not a clue. "I"m sorry ma'am, but we don't get birds out of trees." The woman then cried, "But...But...what about my husband? He's up there, too!" Okey-dokey. One rescue unit coming up.

And also this champion: A man whispered, "Who won the Tommy Hearn fight?" I whispered back, "Sorry, don't know." "You don't?! I thought the police were supposed to know everything," the caller exclaimed in disgust and hung up. Wonder where he got that idea?

My grin died a sudden death as an officer shouted for backup at a local fast food restaurant. An instant later he hit his officer's alert button and yelled, "Step it up!" Okay, this was not so good. No one hurts my guys. I quickly relayed his location to other officers and started a supervisor. The officer keyed his radio again and shouted, "White male..." His radio stuck in the transmit position, the sounds of fists hitting flesh and the grunts of a no-holds-barred fight rang in my earpiece. And then to my utter disbelief in the background I heard, "Welcome to Jack-In-The-Box. May I take your order?" I wanted to yell no, my officer is getting the crap kicked out of him in the drive-thru lane but this guy was persistent, "Wanna try our new chicken fingers?" Finally after what seemed to be an eternity, I heard the wonderful sound of sirens. And the relentless Mr. Jack-In-The-Box tried again, "How about one of our special combo meals?" Later my bruised and battered sweetheart of an officer brought all of us a bunch of chicken fingers - courtesy of Jack-In-The-Box, of course. The job does have its perks, one of which is indigestion; however, this can be quickly followed by heartbreak.

Melody, a fellow dispatcher, answered a 911 line and heard a woman shout, "My ex-husband is banging on my door and I have a restraining order against him." The crash of breaking glass was followed quickly by the woman screaming blue bloody murder. Shots rang out and the woman's screams were abruptly replaced by children's sobbing. The woman's six-year-old daughter picked up the phone. "My Mom said that if anything happened, I could call 911. Can you please hurry? I'm really scared." A dispatcher can't allow her rage and grief to affect her. That kid needs help and it's up to you to get it for her. So, you stuff all those feelings deep down inside you and do your job.

And Melody, a true professional, sucked it up and did a terrific job. Her voice was calm, soothing, "What happened to your mom?" The child cried, "A mean man broke all the glass and shooted a gun. My mom fell down. I don't know where I live, can you find me?" Melody quickly typed in the information. "Sure I can. I've got police officers coming to help you. Who else is in the house with you, honey?" The little girl sobbed, "My brother and sister. She's a baby. My mom got blood on her and she won't wake up." Melody's fingers flew over the keyboard, "Okay, are any of you hurt?" The child answered, "No. Are the people coming really nice?" Melody reassured her, "Yes, honey, the police officers are very nice. They are gonna come and help you out, okay?"

A professional 911 dispatcher must be able to deal with rapidly changing situations and maintain calm at all times. And some days that can be pretty darn hard. I was reaching for my stash of chocolate when my next call came in. Her voice low and worried, a woman announced, "There's a strange woman in my bathroom taking a bubble bath." A bubble bath? Are you kidding me? "You have no idea who she is, ma'am?" The woman said, "No. I really had to pee and when I opened the bathroom door this bitch yelled, 'Close the damned door. I'm taking a bath here!' So, I grabbed her clothes and called 911." Our well-scrubbed burglar got whisked to jail. Some days catching the bad guys is too easy. Some days eating a handful of Tylenol is easy, too.

My headache kicked up a notch when a belligerent man called and said, "I want to report my four-year-old son missing." "Okay, sire, how long has he been missing?" The man snapped, "Four years." I have to admit, I was a bit curious. "Is there a reason you haven't called before now?" There was a slight hesitation, then he replied, "I'm starting to get concerned, ok?" Wow, four years and now he's concerned? "Where was the last place you saw him?" "Panama," he hissed. "Panama," I parroted incredulously. "Have you made a report with the officials in Panama?" His hostility increased, "No." "I'm sorry, sir, but we can't take a missing person report for someone in Panama." He snarled, "Let me talk to someone who knows what they're doing, because you obviously don't."

Some citizens of our fair cities have absolutely no idea of what an officer can or cannot do. They aren't plumbers, electricians, alligator wrestlers (don't ask), or allowed to shoot down low-flying aircraft. We have to educate our callers. I know. I know. It's an unending task. But we can do it. No! Wait! Tearing out your hair leaves those funny bald spots. We-Can-Do-It. Really. Would I lie to you?

A career as a 911 dispatcher is demanding, exasperating, satisfying, and fun. Yeah, fun. Catching a burglar or bank robber rocks. A short happy dance is permitted. You've made a difference and made the world a safer place for a short time. We don't always win but when we do, there's nothing like it. Chocolate anyone?

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